Rare Photographs of Black America at University Exhibit
A black slave woman with an inventory number displayed for a public sale. A ceremony on the Caribbean island of Martinique celebrating France’s renunciation of the slave trade and slavery throughout the French empire. An election scene in the Reconstructionist South. These three rare photographs, two of them pre-Civil War and never before displayed in public, are among the 105 photos chronicling Black America from before the Civil War to just before the Great Depression that went on view at a unique exhibition at the University in mid-November.
“A Dream Deferred: A Photographic Exhibition on the African-American Experience, 1848-1928” has been brought to Israel by the University’s Center for the Study of the United States, headed by Prof. Mechal Sobel. The collection of photographs comes from the personal archive of a New York ophthalmologist, Dr. Stanley B. Burns, who is curator of the present exhibition.
The exhibition is divided into six themes recording the chronology of African American life in the United States over an 80-year period. “It celebrates their strength and achievement, despite oppression, suppression, and denial of their civil rights,” according to Sobel, who told an audience at a colloquium preceding the exhibit opening, “Our culture is deeply related to African culture. We are all part of the African diaspora and should be concerned with its history.”
One of the exhibit themes, the rise of the Middle Class, has generally not been shown in exhibitions and is a pictorial subject that Burns himself developed. The other themes are African American life in slavery and participation in the Civil War 1861-1865, freedom and the dream of change, the violent Jim Crow era, and the “New Negro” after World War I.
“We think in pictures,” Burns said. “Pictures remain. We can influence an opinion by presenting a photo.” Speaking at the colloquium, Burns called himself a cultural historian, not a collector. Essentially, however, he turned a private collection, which began in the mid-1970s, into an archive and a museum. Burns Archive Productions Ltd. contains more than 700,000 pictures on various subjects photographed between 1840 and 1940. It is one of the largest, most comprehensive private collections of historical photographic documentation in the world.
He terms his exhibits “visual essays without a text.” Black America is one of five such major “essays” that his archive covers. The other subjects are medical and post-mortem, crime, war, and Judaica. But the physician—he still practices one day a week, he said—turned archivist also defines photographs as “magical substitutions.” Most people, he claims, empathize with the “victim,” even if a murderer, in a picture.
Photos of blacks in the period of the present exhibit, he explained, represented three kinds of images, two of which—those taken by racists and those taken by geneticists—were found in other studies. His collection also contained a third image, as it were: private photographs for the people themselves who were photographed and for their descendents. This view, Burns continued, was hidden until recently. They include “vernacular photos” from the 1870s-1890s showing middle-class Black Americans “even while lynching was going on.”
The photographs, which are on display in the foyer of the University’s Hecht Museum, will remain on view through January 29, 2003. The exhibition was supported by the U. S. Embassy and the U.S.-Israel Educational Foundation. Members of the Embassy and the American Consul in Haifa attended the colloquium and exhibit opening.
Dr. Stanley Burns (c.) recounting to guests the history behind some of the
photographs on view at the University that are part of his remarkable collection.
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